nVidia banged the ION drum heavily during CES 2009 and onwards. After initial tampering in the dark, Acer broke out with Ion-based desktop system, and the rest followed suit. Zotac, one of top nVidia partners came up with their own Ion platform – pairing the 1.6 GHz Intel Atom 330 with nVidia Ion chipset [rebranded GeForce 9400M chipset]. 

Recently, we got the chance to overclock a stock ASUS EEE PC, and with no hardware modifications to the system and some software tweaks, the EEE netbook yielded very solid overclocking scores. Now, what could we do with a motherboard that is not tied to a tiny little power supply?

Taking Zotac’s ION-ITX-A mini-ITX board through its paces gave us a lot of experience with the ION platform, but with the Intel dual-core Atom as well. Again, just for the fun of it :)

Zotac's retail box with the motherboard...
Zotac’s retail box with the motherboard…

For our overclocking experiment on the Atom 330 processor, we used a dual-channel kit of 2GB DDR2-6400 rated CAS5, and were able to hit as much as 2.2 GHz using air cooling – which is a nice 600 MHz boost from the standard operating speed [1.6 GHz]. The dual core Atom processor is limited to a multiplier of 12, and from there it was simply a question of incrementally increasing the FSB value via the BIOS. The normal bus speed is 133 MHz QDR [Quad Data Rate, equals to 532 MT/s], and we were able to reach 185 MHz QDR [740 "MHz" e.g. Million Transfers/Second].
The installed BIOS revision of the Zotac Ion A-series had no processor voltage modification option, we could only bump the memory voltage up to 2.1V (from 1.8V), and add another 0.2V to the chipset voltage. On the plus side, the Nvidia chipset does allow for both linked and unlinked operation, making it an obvious choice for overclocking – it should be able to run 2 GHz on a daily basis without any issues.

In terms of benchmarks we might have been able to do better if only the DDR2 operating voltage would have allowed for headroom up to 2.3-2.4 volts. Just for the heck of it, we did try mounting a custom single-stage unit to the Intel Atom 330, which simply resulted in the Zotac Ion being unable to boot – as its heat output was far below the 250 watt cooling capacity of the compressor. So I settled for adding an extra 120mm fan on top of the heat sink instead. Nevertheless it was good fun! Perhaps future BIOS revisions with an added CPU voltage option can change that outcome – only time will tell.

HWbot Results page for our overclocked Atom 330
HWbot stats page based on our Atom 330 experiment…

As you can tell from our CPU-Z submission, the IGP is being recognized as “ION”, and not the GeForce 9400M many seem to think it is. At the time of writing this, the Ion GPU has not yet been added to Hwbot, but once that’s been taken care of, we also have a whole bunch of 3DMark and PCMark results for you – so stay tuned for an update!